In the morning hours of December 26th local time, South East Asia was rocked by a colossal earthquake that cut loose on the ocean floor off the west coast of Northern Sumatra, about 155 miles south southeast of Banda Aceh, Indonesia. The quake, which was measured as a 9.0 on the Richter scale by the U.S Geological Survey, triggered a massive tsunami event that has left a death toll in its wake that may continue to rise beyond 100,000 according to the International Red Cross.
Due to the quake’s proximity to prime surfing locations in that part of the world, the surf community’s familiarity with the area and its people, and because of the high number of surfers that are known to frequent many of the countries affected, the surf world has been collectively holding its breath, waiting for more news of the effects of this immense natural disaster.
Early reports suggest that many areas most familiar to surfers seem to have been mercifully spared from large scale destruction and massive loss of life. Bali, in southern Indonesia has suffered no ill effects from the earthquake and the wave. The Mentawais, an area which many feared could have been extremely hard hit due to its proximity to the epicenter, apparently also has been mostly spared.
“The Mentawais and Padang appear to have made it through fine,” said Anthony Marcotti of Sariana Koat Mentawai, a boat charter service which operates extensively throughout the region. “All our trips are still on schedule and accounted for, and I spoke with a friend of mine who was in the Playgrounds area when this went down, and he told me the water level just got really high and then really low. Extreme highs and lows that went in and out a few times in about an hour, but that’s about it.” Playgrounds, which is located towards the northern end of the island chain on Siberut is closer to the epicenter than most of the other well known breaks in the Mentawais.
Chris Scurrah, owner and operator of Sumatran Surfariis, another boat trip service operating in the Mentawais, also checked in. Scurrah was actually out among the islands on his vessel Asia during the quake, and apparently felt no direct effects. On Sunday the 26th he did however, notice strange tidal and ocean conditions, as well as “the mouth of the little bay on Kandui charging like a raging river,” but was not aware of the devastating quake until roughly 32 hours after it took place when he learned of it from a news report on his shipboard radio. Only then did he connect the unusual conditions he witnessed to the massive quake. After returning to Padang, Chris reported that as of 2 pm on Tuesday the 28th, “there is still strange water movements, the tides are still coming up and down within an hour, there is strange movements in the river, and the ocean is still adjusting,” but he also reports that there has been no damage to any of the vessels in the Padang harbor, or loss of life.
Surf Aid International commented as well, and confirmed reports that tsunami conditions did not affect areas in the Mentawais where their people were located. Andrew Griffiths, co-founder and CEO of Surf Aid said that “our people in the field in the village of Katiet, which is near Lance’s Right, reported that they didn’t even feel the earthquake or notice anything really out of the ordinary.”
Good news for those concerned that the Mentawais and its people may have been wiped out completely. And while these reports are certainly heartening and seem to indicate the island chain escaped mostly unscathed, they by no means confirm fully that there has been no loss of life or property in the region.
Farther north in Indonesia, reports from Nias and Simeulu are suggesting there has been some property damage, ocean surges, and perhaps loss of life. However, unconfirmed second hand accounts of what occurred seem to indicate that this area may have been spared–it is simple to early to tell. While the remote nature of these islands and lack of solid information make it hard to confirm exactly what the situation is, Dr. Jose Borrero, a surfer and a PHD who is an Assistant Research Professor at the University of Southern California and specializes in tsunamis and coastal engineering says it makes sense that these islands also would have escaped bearing the full brunt of the tsunami’s power as did their more southern Mentawai neighbors. This is because, like the Mentawais, they also lie to the south of the quake’s epicenter. Surprising, especially considering the proximity of these islands to both the starting point of the quake and to Aceh where the death tolls and destruction from the tsunami have been catastrophic and most severe. Borrero explains: “Tsunamis radiate energy side to side, perpendicular to the direction of the fault line. This fault ruptured from south to north, and while areas to the south certainly would, and did see some effects, not much energy would have been pushed down that way. Instead, the tsunami radiated out to the east and west of the fault, and if you look at a map those were the areas hardest hit.” Borrero says this explains why Aceh and places as far as Somalia were affected, while areas to the south in Indonesia were left relatively unscathed.
In other areas of the globe linked to the surf world the news was not as good. The Andamans, Nicobars, and Maldives, three remote islands chains known as exotic surf travel destinations were all affected. The Andamans and Nicobars, which lay to the north of the epicenter in the Bay of Bengal, and rest directly on the fault along which the quake ruptured, have been cut off from communication. In the Maldives, a nation made up of roughly 1200 tiny islands located to the west of the quake zone in the Indian Ocean, the disaster has been keenly felt. “On Male Island there has been a lot of water damage to houses, boats in the harbor, etcetera,” said Ian Lyons from Atoll Travels, a surf charter business operating in the Maldives. “The tourist islands have received varied degrees of damage, some of it severe, some not too bad. The main surf islands of Dhonveli and Lohifushi sustained quite a lot of damage, although the full extent won’t be known for a few days, and Club Kani, which is near Lohifushi, lost about 90% of its over water bungalows. Paradise Island, just to the south of Dhonveli, was also heavily damaged. The islands along the eastern fringe of the central and southern atolls were the worst affected, while the northern islands weren’t really hit that badly.” Loss of life in the Maldives has been relatively small at only about 50 confirmed dead, when compared to the numbers coming in from places like Northern Sumatra and Sri Lanka, but the tiny island nation will surely suffer from the loss of tourist facilities and tourist dollars, as its economy relies heavily on visitors.
In Sri Lanka, an emerging surf destination known for its popularity with Israeli surfers, and its mid-sized right points, the death tolls have been enormous, with at least 23,000 confirmed dead. It was feared that one British family of five may have been killed while surfing near the resort of Hikkaduwa, but Wesley Baker, the managing director of Pure Vacations, the firm through which the family booked their trip, confirmed that they have been accounted for and are safe.
In regard to surfer related deaths in all the affected areas, so far, no surf tour operators have reported losses. This is due to a variety of reasons, the greatest perhaps being that Southeast Asia is not in season right now as a surf destination.With most of the Mentawai and Maldives boat fleet vessels in harbor or dry dock for the off season, and few surfers traveling through the area, it seems the surf world may have fortunately slipped through the cracks of this nearly unimaginable natural disaster and appalling loss of life. “This could have been much different had the quake occurred during the peak surfing season for Indonesia and the Maldives,” said Henry Morales of Wave Hunters in a press release. “Nonetheless, thousands of souls have perished in the catastrophe, and we are humbled by the force of mother-nature. We are grateful for all the surfers who were spared, either by timing or their own good fortune.” However, with news reports trickling in on an hourly basis, and the death toll at over 100,000, it is not a stretch to suggest that some surfers may have perished, especially in Sri Lanka. A BBC report said an Australian surfer witnessed “30 to 40 surfers out at Galle in Sri Lanka disappear.” It should be noted this account is unconfirmed at this point.
The good fortune the surf community has experienced thus far is at least a flicker of positive news amidst a massive wave of destruction. Commenting on the broader scale of the calamity, Surf Aid’s Andrew Griffiths had this to say. “The tragedy is that this sort of event only further hinders development and exacerbates poverty problems in a part of the world already struggling with those issues. Until we can get them built up and properly modernized, these areas will continue to be susceptible to disasters of this magnitude and this sort of horrendous loss of life.”